2019 AFC Asian Cup, Group Stage
  • Teerasil Dangda (33')
  • Sunil Chhetri (27' PEN, 46')
  • Anirudh Thapa (68')
  • Jeje Lalpekhlua (80')

Buoyant India announce themselves to Asian elite

The story of Sunday's Thailand-India match at the Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi was all about India's second-half revival, rallying from a 1-1 scoreline to prevail 4-1, the biggest win in the tournament's history for the runners-up of 1964.

To get to that point, though, it would be worthwhile to remember how the first 45 minutes played out.

India and Thailand were returning to the Asian Cup fold after gaps of eight and 12 years, respectively, and there were likely to be nerves in both camps. Especially for India, who have brought the third-youngest team to UAE after Vietnam and Iraq, and hadn't won a finals match since beating Hong Kong 3-1 55 years ago.

After taking the lead through a Sunil Chhetri penalty, it appeared that the occasion was getting to the Indian team, as they conceded a soft goal off a free kick, allowing Thai captain Teerasil Dangda to rise unchallenged for a header that beat captain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal. It was merely the culmination of sustained pressure from Thailand, who were beginning to dominate possession, and playing passes with speed, accuracy and increasing alarm for the Indian defence.

There had to be a change of tack for India at half time.

"Around the 25-30 minute mark, you saw them [Thailand] pass and we just couldn't touch them. If you allow them to pass, they will keep coming and attacking," said Chhetri, who scored India's first two goals, the second just after resumption off play from a sharp counterattack that started with Udanta Singh's explosive run down the right. "We just wanted to be brave and press high. We just didn't want to allow them to play."

Chhetri was one of the senior players, other than centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, who reminded the team at half time that this was the moment they had all been preparing for since the last four years. Coach Stephen Constantine also demonstrated to his midfield duo of Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder how they were getting drawn out wide by the experienced Thai quartet of Dangda, Songkrasin, Adisak Kraisorn and Supachai Chaided. Halder was encouraged to hold firm in the middle, while Thapa was given more freedom to join in attack, where Chhetri's understanding with young Ashique Kuruniyan was already proving a handful for the Thai defence.

Also see: Sunil Chhetri, India's Mr Football

Thailand were caught without a plan B, as their playmaker and star player Chanathip Songkrasin would confess later. "Everybody did their best, but India were very strong and aggressive," he said of a second-half performance from India were Thailand were overrun in midfield and had to keep a succession of Indian attacks away.

The energy of the Indian team in the second 45 minutes was something the television cameras couldn't have possibly captured. Even the substitutes played a role, with Constantine enjoying the luxury of putting his second most-capped player in the squad Jeje Lalpekhlua on with 12 minutes to go. Jeje, coming into the Asian Cup on the back of a scoreless run in domestic football this season, promptly dispatched winger Halicharan Narzary's diagonal cross into the top left corner of the net to add a fourth late on.

The second half was akin to the second lap of an 800m race, where one competitor just blazed away at the halfway stage and left everything in their wake, and the immediate post-match reactions of the teams told that story. India sank to their feet, the collective units huddled together in celebration, while a few of the Thailand players broke down.

Chhetri would credit India's ability to rally together for the second half as the turning point."Sometimes it doesn't work, because sometimes the other team can be better. When you have the whole team being brave, that's what happens."